A chain of traumatic events landed a five-year-old boy and his mom in a homeless shelter, where things turned even more tragic. The little boy was sexually abused by another kid staying at the shelter.
Thinking about how best to prepare her young client for the intimidating court process looming ahead, Helene Potlock, victim/witness assistance program director for the state attorney of the Second Judicial Circuit, was ready to try something completely new.
“I talked to his mom and said, ‘What do you think about bringing in a dog? Do you think your son would like that?’”
As it turned out, the little boy was heartbroken that he’d been forced to give up his own beloved small dog when they’d moved into the shelter.
“So to bring in the dog was the just the best thing in the world,” Potlock recalled. “His face just lit up when we even mentioned it.”
On the day of the deposition, along came Tallahassee lawyer Bobbie Jo Finer on one end of a leash and her little Dachshund Piper Laurie on the other.
Piper immediately pads over to the little boy sitting on the floor in the state attorney’s children’s play area and covers his face with licks and kisses.
The little boy flashed an ear-to-ear grin.
“So, you know, on a day that could have been very traumatic and tense and awful, he couldn’t wait to come back to the courthouse if he got to see Piper again,” Potlock said. The Pet Therapy in the Courts Program is unique in the Second Circuit, where 15 teams of volunteers and their specially trained and certified Companions for Therapy (ComForT) dogs help victims of violent crimes and children in dependency court feel less scared about testifying or talking to the judge.
“Our role is to spend time with the victim while they are either waiting to do a deposition or go into court and testify, knowing they are going to have to see the abuser,” said Finer, recently retired after 22 years as assistant general counsel for the Department of Community Affairs.
The owner of five Dachshunds and foster mom to four others, Finer employs Piper, the frisky one who can’t hold her licker, and Honey Girl, the mellow one with the wiggly tail, as therapy dogs for the courts.
She’ll never forget the deposition of a 14-year-old girl testifying about sexual abuse.
“She sat there with Honey Girl in her lap, and I sat quietly nearby holding Honey’s leash. The young woman stroked her the whole time she was giving testimony. This little dog helped her relax. It helped her get through it.”
And the defense attorney didn’t object.
“People see they are getting better testimony, and it’s a good thing for both sides,” Finer said.
In the Tallahassee area, 146 ComForT dog teams have long been used to cheer up the elderly in nursing homes, help motivate stroke victims at the hospital learning to walk again and even encourage school children to read.
But it was a new trick to bring the dogs to court, making the most of what dog lovers already know: Petting a dog has a soothing effect; hugging a dog is a pleasant distraction. Going to court is intimidating for anyone, and especially so for young child victims. So why not use dogs in court?
Dog Day at Dependency Court
Wakulla County Judge Jill Walker seized the opportunity to bring dogs to dependency court in December.
“Dogs are working the halls, so to speak,” Judge Walker said of her emphasis on family-centered hearings. While waiting for their cases to be called, children and their family members wait in a grand jury room with a guardian ad litem, or by court appointment for the suit. Children are given free books and their own quilt handmade by elderly volunteers. And a dog wags a tail nearby, ready for petting and hugs.
“The dogs really, really help relax the kids and give them something to have fun with and occupy them while they are waiting to come into the courtroom,” Walker said. “The result is that when I get people coming into court, they are not loaded for bear. It makes my job easier. It gives me an entry way, and we talk about the dogs. I’ll ask: ‘Which dog do we have in the hall today? Did you like the dog?’ And they see I’m not the judge from the old-timey movies that they need to be afraid of.”